How To Improve Digestion with Healthy Eating
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, around 70 million people in the U.S. alone are experiencing some kind of digestive problem. That's a large number!
Most of us have dealt with this issue, either in a mild or more intense version, and it's no wonder. Our daily lives are fast and full, and we juggle both home and work responsibilities. Busy-ness, stress or fatigue can lead us to grab our meals and rush through them, or skip them altogether.
As someone who has dealt with lingering digestive issues, I can attest to the effect that kind of lifestyle has on the body. For years I lived on "convenience" food, and for just as long I had stomach discomfort and sluggishness. After years of looking for a wonder cure, I finally came to a realization: what we eat and how we eat both have a tremendous impact on digestive health.
This is good news. It means you have the power to make changes in your eating habits that will help ease and even regulate some symptoms of digestive trouble.
Do A Quick Check-In
Have you experienced any of these common digestive issues? Adjusting your diet can go a long way toward easing the symptoms.
- Constipation (Possible causes: lack of water in the body)
- Diarrhea (Possible causes: certain foods that stimulate the intestines; foods that have not been stored or prepared properly)
- Heartburn or GERD (Possible Causes: various foods or drinks that trigger difficulty in the esophagus; extra weight; stress)
- Food Intolerance (Possible causes: certain foods, such as dairy products or beans)
Note: Certain conditions need professional medical treatment. Always start bygetting a check-up, diagnosis and recommendations from your doctor before making any big changes on your own.
Making Positive Changes
Step One: Become Aware
Keep a food journal for 5 to 7 days, jotting down everything you take in each day - snacks as well as meals. Also, take note of any digestive troubles you have, marking the time.
This may seem like busywork, but you're actually gathering important data. Looking at your food choices and their results may show patterns that are causing you harm. (For instance, seeing that you have gassiness after eating ice cream or cheese may reveal a dairy intolerance you didn't know about. )
Journalling gave me a more complete picture of my own issues, including a lactose sensitivity and IBS, and foods that triggered the problems. All my discomfort suddenly made a lot more sense!
Step 2: Do The Math
If you've ruled out any major issues, improving your digestive health becomes a matter of simple mathematics - subtracting some foods out of your diet while adding others in. This isn't to say you can never eat a favorite "trigger food" again. But once you feel better, you may rethink the indulgence.
Items to Subtract
This is a general list of offending foods. Add any others to your list as you discover them.
1. White flour - Used in many other baking mixes and pre-made desserts, white flour is basically wheat flour that has been bleached and has had the fiber processed out. Some call it the "glue of the gut" because it clogs up the intestines and brings on constipation.
2. Sugar (Lactose, Fructose, Sorbitol, Galactose) - Several types of sugar have the potential to cause digestive problems in those sensitive to them. Symptoms can range from gas and bloat to diarrhea.
3. Fried and fatty foods - Both these kinds of items can either race or move very sluggishly through the body. Either diarrhea or constipation can result.
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A Jump Start for adding fiber into your day:
- Add a 1/2 of fresh berries to breakfast cereal, or to top pancakes.
- Pack 1 cup of carrot, green pepper and celery sticks for lunch, or as a healthy snack to munch during the day.
- Use 2/3 cup of brown rice instead of white rice for dinner.
Items to Add
1. Fiber - Fiber is indigestible part of plant-based foods. You've heard the news before, and it's true - getting more fiber into your diet really does regulate digestion (as an added bonus, it also lowers LDL cholesterol and helps regulate sugar in the blood).
How much do you need?
Adult men should get 38 grams a day and women need about 25. The amount is lower in children, teens, and seniors. (The USDA website provides intake recommendations as well as a list of foods with their fiber content.)
What are the best sources of fiber?
- Fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned)
- Whole grains (brown rice, steel cut oatmeal, whole grain pasta)
- Beans and legumes (kidney, black or white beans, lentils and peas for example)
- Nuts and Seeds (namely walnuts, almonds and sunflower)
Note: Just remember to add extra fiber into your diet gradually. Your body needs time to adjust to avoid getting extra gassiness, too!
Our bodies are about 75% water, and we lose this vital liquid through our everyday functions. Our digestive systems are especially dependent on water to ensure the proper amount of acid to break down and get the nutrients from the food we eat.
How much do you need?
Most experts recommend drinking at least 8 glasses of fluid a day. Water and decaffeinated coffee and tea count toward this goal.
Step 3: incorporate Other Ideas
1. Eat smaller meals
If you have trouble after a big regular meal, consider spreading out your eating. The stomach tends to handle small amounts of food more readily, which may ease gas and bloating, as well as the "after dinner sleepiness".
2. Create a serene dining space
Eating while we are feeling stress is a sure way to invite digestive trouble. Carve out at least 20 minutes for your meal (start with dinner), and clear the dining area of clutter. Then take a couple of deep breaths before you begin eating.
3. Eat more slowly
Kids aren't the only ones who need reminding to chew our food before we swallow! We can actually help our digestion by chewing things more thoroughly. And eating more slowly gives you a chance to savor each bite.
4. Make each meal colorful
Design your plate with foods of different colors and hues. That not only makes for an appealing look, but ensures you're getting a big variety of fiber in your diet.